Plausible Deniability: Hezbollah in South America


    Plausible deniability is the ability of people, typically senior officials in a formal or informal chain of command, to deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others in an organizational hierarchy because of a lack or absence of evidence that can confirm their participation, even if they were personally involved in or at least willfully ignorant of the actions.

    Plausible Deniability: Hezbollah in South America

    Despite counter-accusations, Hezbollah’s plausible deniable presence is maintained within illicit economies and activities in South America. The growth in a Venezuelan-Iranian partnership provides Hezbollah with an opportunity to strengthen its degree of anonymity in the continent.

    Why Does This Matter?

    The Trump administration highlighted in January 2020 the threat Hezbollah poses to the Americas after a targeted Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strike killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds force. Hezbollah’s history suggests an almost certain capability of influence and action within South America. Allied states like Venezuela, together with a global increase in drug-production and trafficking, provide an environment under which a plausibly deniable Hezbollah presence will likely be maintained.  

    • The overt relationship between the Venezuelan and Iranian government likely provides Hezbollah with significant capabilities to maintain and increase its network of influence.
    • Iranian trade deals with the Venezuelan government highly likely increase the degree of plausible deniability of Hezbollah and the IRGC in illicit activities.
    • Hezbollah is likely normalised as a common Organised Crime Group (OCG) within Latin America. Plausible deniability under the IRGC-Iran is a likely crucial driver of Hezbollah’s capability of expansion within the continent.

    Current Venezuelan Environment

    Financial issues within Venezuela lead the Maduro-headed country to rely on foreign partners to maintain essential services which are already depleted. Russian-owned Rosneft controlled 80% of oil reserves until sanctions pushed its exit. The Orinoco mining belt has simultaneously seen the presence of Russian and criminal organisations exploiting natural resources. Turkey as well as Iran are reportedly profiting over speculation with food-assistance programs (CLAP) as well as gold mining.

    The latter one considered the highest value asset in possession of the Venezuelan government. Dependence on foreign authorities to maintain a corrupted government and provide essential public services highly likely paves way for third parties like Hezbollah to increase activities within the country and region while maintaining plausible deniability under sanctioned-governmental-relations.

    History & Structure in Latin America

    History & Activity

    Attacks targeting the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a Jewish cultural centre were attributed to Hezbollah. Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was assassinated prior to denouncing a relationship between Iran and the alleged responsible terrorists. Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation (ESO) has expanded towards an OCG profile in Latin America, associated with the Oficina de Envigado in Medellín in 2011 as well as the Brazilian PCC in 2014 in the Tri-Border-Area.

    An increase in cooperation with different cartels and OGC’s likely damages the degree of Hezbollah’s plausible-deniability presence under which Hezbollah can maintain itself. Still, an $800 million per week profit off trafficking in the TBA makes it almost certain that Hezbollah has maintained at least a minimal presence aimed at generating profits towards activities in Syria and Lebanon.

    Established Structure & Implications

    The Atlantic Council introduces three groups as Hezbollah networks within South America and primarily Venezuela: the Saleh, Nassereddine and Rada Clans.

    • The Saleh clan, led by brothers Ali Mohamad Saleh and Kassem Mohamad Saleh, was revealed as a network of connections from the Oficina de Envigado in Medellín with Hezbollah in facilitating weapons and drug trafficking across the Venezuelan border.
    • The Nassereddine clan, led by Ghazi and Abdallah Nassereddine, acted as facilitators between the Venezuelan government and Hezbollah. Hugo Carvajal Ramos and Tareck El Aissami, respectively Chavez’ head of military intelligence and interior minister, met with Hezbollah representatives in Damascus in 2009 for an apparent weapons trade between FARC and Hezbollah.
    • The Rada clan, led by Abdala Rada Ramel, reportedly runs drug-trafficking operations out of Maicao. In particular, Ramel stated in an initial interrogation that he was cooperating with Salman Raouf Salman, an alleged head of Hezbollah’s ESO with charges of participating in the AMIA attack.

    While criminal activities and structure are almost certainly driven by plausible deniability, a lack of substantial evidence highly likely impedes any legal action to be undertaken. In May 2020, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Adel El Zabayar with drug and weapon trafficking charges between Hezbollah, Hamas and FARC. The former head of intelligence Carvajal Ramos issued similar accusations towards El Aissami of intentions to recruit Hezbollah militants. Despite an increasingly common pattern amongst the accusations, the lack of public evidence increases Hezbollah’s plausible deniable presence in Latin America.

    Demonstration supporting Aissami’s Aragua Governor candidacy

    Hezbollah ESO units in South America are highly likely benefited and indirectly protected by an imperialistic narrative of US and western interference to expand illicit activities. Currently, it is not possible to determine with accuracy the degree of Hezbollah’s penetration within the Venezuelan government as well as criminal regional geopolitics. This highlights a so-far successful strategy in maintaining plausible deniability while keeping sufficient visibility to overtly threat US and Western interests. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that a plausible deniable Hezbollah presence enhances a criminal presence within South America both for financial and political purposes.

    Venezuela as a Non-State Actor Attraction

    In 2020, 5 Iranian tankers carried approximately 1.5 million oil barrels to Venezuela in exchange for gold from the Orinoco reserve. On August, 4 Iranian tankers were seized by authorities following a similar methodology to the previous 5 arrivals. Mahan Air, an Iranian-sanctioned airline linked to the IRGC, began flights to Venezuela in 2019 and carried out over 20 journeys in 2020 allegedly providing logistical and personnel support in re-building oil refineries.

    Similar to its Russian counterparts which exploited minerals in the Orinoco reserve in exchange for oil, Iran is likely to continue to exploit Venezuela’s natural resources including gold reserves. The increasing insecurity in Venezuela, particularly along the Orinoco reserve, will likely lead to further dependence of Venezuela on third parties as it did with Russian mercenaries in the past. Hezbollah’s plausibly deniable presence in Latin America is almost certain in the following 18 months considering potential illicit business opportunities.

    Image1: Atlantic Council / Khamenei (link)

    Image2: Cadernodojornaldele (link)

    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo is a graduate in psychology specialised in decision-making. He is currently finishing a postgraduate in Politics and History, with particular interests focused on intelligence, non-state actors and information warfare.

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